My career in science used to begin with a snake, now it may begin with a lie.
The snake is a garter snake. I have known this snake since I was 8-years-old when Mama bought me a book on snake identification. She bought it after I brought home a baby copperhead in my pocket. She knew I wasn’t going to stop bringing home snakes, so she wanted to make sure I knew which ones to bring home and which ones to leave behind.
I have told this ‘copperhead-in-my-pocket’ anecdote for two decades now. I’ve used it in essays and in job interviews as a watershed moment in my development as an ecologist.
But it may be a lie.
Last month I was sitting in an Asian restaurant in Falmouth, Massachusetts, re-reading Old Yeller (I mean, where would you re-read a classic from your childhood?). The narrator, a teenage boy, Travis, describes how his little brother, Arliss, has a penchant for bringing home snakes and frogs. I nodded remembering all the animals I brought home as a kid.
Then I stopped eating my cashew chicken with brown rice when I read the following:
“And once he turned out of his pocket a wadded-up baby copperhead that nearly threw Mama into spasms. We never did figure out why the snake hadn’t bitten him…”
Had I torn a thread from Old Yeller‘s story and wove it into my own? Was this anecdote I’ve told for years a lie?
Mama doesn’t remember the ‘copperhead-in-the-pocket’ story, but she does remember buying the paperback book on snakes. And she remembers books on dinosaurs and fish. She remembers me bringing home snakes, snapping turtles, crawdads, fish, frogs, bugs, and spiders. But not a copperhead in my pocket, baby or otherwise.
Did little Arliss’s life mimic mine or did I steal his?
I will never be able to tell you for sure . All I can tell you is that the snake in front of me is a garter snake. And I know this because Mama bought me a book on snakes when I was 8.
Or maybe I was 10.